I do not believe I came up with the concept of urgency in a main conflict, but I cannot find the original source, so I will just define it here.

When I create and develop a main conflict (I am a plotter, meaning I plan out my novel prior to writing them), I make sure it has several key traits. One of those traits is urgency; that is, the thing keeping the protagonist from sitting around twiddling their thumbs because they have all the time in the world to solve the main conflict. With urgency in place, they do not have all the time in the world. They should, in fact, have very little time indeed, if any at all. This pressures them to solve the main problem/conflict, and that pressure in turn generates additional tension for the reader.

I believe every main conflict should have at least some amount of urgency, some reason that the character has to solve it now rather than later. Whether or not this is true, is not the question. The question is as follows:

Question: Are there any methods/formulas/conventions/common practices for creating urgency? I frequently find myself stuck trying to create urgency, and this has led me to wonder if there are some conventions for creating it that I am not aware of.

Note: I'm not looking for how to write urgency. I'm looking for what causes that urgency. It take many forms, so I'm looking for a formula or common practice that will enable me to easily add urgency to any situation.


Examples of urgency:

Main Problem: The bomb must be defused.

Urgency: The bomb is activated, and the timer is going down. The bomb has to be defused NOW!

Or...

Main Problem: We need to find a way out of the maze.

Urgency: ...And we're being chased by monsters. We need to get out NOW!

And one with a more traditional conflict rather than simply a passing problem:

Main Conflict: Joe needs to find a way to tell Jim he's sorry for what happened.

Urgency: Jim is leaving the country in a week. Joe has to find a way to tell him soon.

Google searches for 'urgency' yield either nothing, or articles that use the term 'urgency' in place of 'conflict.'

To me, urgency is about setting the right environment, tone, mood, feel. It's about how you describe their actions. Are they moving around the maze quickly? Or do they stumble into walls as they scurry about desperate to find a way out. Are they constantly looking at watches while the time ticks closer and closer to inevitable doom or do you assert that they need to hurry but then never have them be time conscious?

Ultimately, it comes down to word choice. What would YOU do if you were in a hurry in that situation? Take those actions, take those thoughts, and put them to words. Do people around them become a blur in their rush? Does hearing the monsters roar in the distance make their hearts jump and skip a beat as their tired legs find renewed energy to push on, desperate to escape?

EDIT: OP is looking for ideas on how to create the situations that would require urgency and not how to create urgency as in the actual action of urgency.

  • Remember that this question is not about the actual writing; it is about the reason for the urgency. I know perfectly well how to write urgency. What I'm asking about is how to create it before I start writing. Simply having things 'be urgent' isn't enough. You need the reason. Using your own answer as an example, the time ticking closer, the inevitable doom, and the monsters in the distance are all examples of the cause of urgency. That's what I need. Is there a formula or method to help me regularly come up with those causes in more complicated scenarios? – Thomas Myron Jan 26 '17 at 19:39
  • I think discovery writers (those that discover their story by writing it) tend to see formulas as artificial and inorganic. It's a totally different way of writing. Don't worry, it doesn't end up artificial. :) I've edited the OP, but I think you're still thinking in terms of creating as you go. I'm not doing that. Creating urgency is part of the plot. I don't have a plot already made that I can draw from; that's what I'm doing when I create urgency: adding another part to the plot. It's the difference between developing and writing. – Thomas Myron Jan 26 '17 at 20:10
  • Forgive me for my confusion here, but if you aren't creating as you go.... but then you don't already have a plot but rather the urgency creates a part to the plot wouldn't you be creating as you go? If you already have a set plot (being that their story is already pre-planned and not discovered by writing) and you are trying to find places where you can add elements of urgency, then I still stick by what I said with: Does actions to get to B require urgency to get away from, to grow, to train to be better from point A. – ggiaquin16 Jan 26 '17 at 20:17
  • 1
    Ah. I see the confusion. The story is not pre-planned. That plan has to come from somewhere; that's what I'm creating right now. What I have is a very vague idea of what happens and how things turn out; barely a narration of events. I take the main conflict and add traits to it (like urgency) so that it becomes a great conflict that cannot be resolved until the end of the book and grips the reader. Those traits add details which contribute large chunks to the plot, and help form it into its final shape. Urgency is one of those traits. – Thomas Myron Jan 26 '17 at 20:23
  • Say you have a story and in this plot point, you have 2 space ships that are going to fight. Does the losing ship need to warp away before further structural integrity is lost? Or does another ship from the losing ship's faction comes in and saves them and they can take their time repairing and traveling away from the battle? – ggiaquin16 Jan 26 '17 at 20:23

Situations that create a sense of urgency can be condensed to a running timer: there's the total amount of time, there's the time still left, and there's what is expected to happen when time runs out. When writing a scene, you have to justify those elements. You can also play with them.

Let me explain: in your maze example, what limits the amount of time the characters can spend there? Are the monsters more likely to attack when it grows dark, and the sun is already setting? Do they have a limited amount of food and water (in which case losing the bag of food while running from a monster would shorten their time, while finding a water source would give them some more time)? The presence of monsters alone does not convey a sense of urgency, since there's no timer attached to it - it only conveys a sense of danger.

Your bomb example: if there's a time-trigger, there's urgency. That's why you see those so often in movies. Even then, if the bomb is set to explode at 16:00, you've got to justify the characters arriving at the scene at 15:50, rather than 14:00. But if the thing is triggered rather by some form of physical contact, characters can take their time clearing all civilians away, getting a robot on site, and diffusing the thing. Not glamorous, but actually much more common.

Some situations come with an inbuilt timer: if a character has been shot, there's only so much time until he bleeds out and dies. In other situations, you've got to set the timer manually, as you did in your third example (friend due to leave in a week).

A second crucial element is that the time is never enough. If the available time is adequate for the task, there's no problem, no story. It is when time is insufficient that characters must put forth all their resourcefulness, overcome the odds, and make it.

  • Indeed, I would consider the second element the most important one. The first one is just a logical consequence (how could you have insufficient time if your time is not limited?) Also, the limitation need not be a timer (that is, a fixed end time); it can also be that the protagonist has to be faster than the antagonist. – celtschk Nov 9 at 8:56

I do have to comment that your first example is getting kinda laughable in it's ability to cause a sense of Urgency... we all know it will be the last possible second that the bomb will be defused, especially in the climax and the heroes are present. A better example would be a Hitchcock bomb where the unaware party is discussing a mundane topic while the scene keeps cutting to the countdown of the bomb. The tension of the scene is built by the audience's exclusive knowledge of the bomb's presance, not the defusing of a bomb.

Another good example is the use of the device from the Twilight Zone episode "The Obsolete Man" where two men are locked in the room with a bomb and the situation is developed in such a way that one man is ready to die, but will release the other if and only if a certain condition unknown to both the audience and the second man is met.

A ticking bomb that must be defused, rarely does this job because, we all know the blast will be stopped at 0:01 on a digital clock. The best way to subvert the expectation is to have a 15 minute count down stopped at 10:00... then cut to an office party at HQ to celebrate the Spy Agencies newest record for bomb disarmament by the hero. With Cake and Punch.

The one story example I saw with a good subversion of the countdown was in Disney's Basil of Baker Street where the titular hero realizes that the only way out of the deathtrap (with a countdown) is to trigger the whole device prematurely at the right moment, and cause a cascading chain reactions of failures.

What are some conventions for creating a sense of urgency?

Maybe there are conventions, I'd posit that there must be motivation, and stress from thwarting factors. A sense of limited time is also common but not essential.

Your character/s have an objective (let's postulate some):

  • To survive the bomb.
  • To get out of the maze.
  • To get rid of the incriminating evidence.
  • To get to a safe place.
  • To have sex.

Etc..

Then you need some potentially or actually confounding events/conditions

  • The bomb countdown speeds up, the door is locked.
  • The maze changes every time you think you know where you are, the lights are going out one by one.
  • The cops pull you over - broken taillight the gun is in the glovebox - with your prints on it.
  • Your captor cuts your feet off. ;)
  • The person you're making out with with in the sauna is realy sexy and your towel is tiny. Your mom comes to the door.

You can then find that the character is stuck in a bind:

  • If you try to diffuse the bomb it may explode - time is running out.

  • Do you give in to your fear of the dark, the only way out is further into darkness - or follow your urge to huddle in a corner? It's getting darker.

  • If you seem nervous the cop gets suspicious, this makes you even more nervous.

  • If you crawl away you won't get far and will get punished for trying, your captor is out shopping, but for how long? Won't get another chance for weeks.

  • You are both realy excited but your mom starts telling you (from outside the door) about the intricacies of your grandad's bowel problems - if you give your mom the wrong answer she may come in. The towel is realy realy tiny. The towel slides to the floor...

Thus in each situation you add a second motivating factor, the factors potentially contradict or conflict each-other. A finite or indeterminate amount of time to finish a critical task is often a factor - certain known things to be found in tension with an element of uncertainty is very familiar from popular fiction - ie. what could happen - the potential. Also fair to say, one of the motivating factors commonly involves fear.

You will notice however that both the person in the sauna and the situation with the cop are not dependent on time so much as other factors, the immediacy (certainty) of the cop's/mom's presence, the gun (fear of getting caught)/massive barely concealed boner (fear of embarassment) , the (potential) interactions and the cop's/mom's/lover's (indeterminate) thoughts and future actions. Those ones could be kept going for as long as you like without significant handwaving.

Cogintive dissonance is a closely but not exclusivley associated phenomenon.

When confronted with facts that contradict personal beliefs, ideals, and values, people will find a way to resolve the contradiction in order to reduce their discomfort.

Again it comes down to psychological stress.

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